A few months ago I realised I was running on empty, emotionally (having been thrust into the unlikely and ill-fitting role of carer through the winter and into the spring) and intellectually, being fresh out of words and ideas, since they had all been poured into the manuscript of my book. Time has passed, and now the patient is recovering well, and the manuscript is in the capable hands of my publishers, the alchemists who will transform a computer file into a living, breathing book.
So, with a slight sense that I was going all ‘Eat, Pray, Love’-ish, I decided that, in addition to food (which has ever and always been my salvation, so no change there); prayer (which does have its moments, even for those of us without faith, if viewed in George Herbert’s inimitable words as ‘something understood’); and love (oops, it will now become clear that I have not actually read Eat, Pray, Love and so I am not sure whether this is an American euphemism for sex, which would mean this post veering into unchartered waters) but fortunately this sentence is now so long that even the most careful reader will have lost the will to follow it to its logical conclusion, allowing me, in a rhetorical sleight of hand, to return to the main clause: I decided that I wanted to learn.
So it is that I am writing this in Otranto, an ancient city port poised on the easternmost point of the heel of Italy (next stop Albania), and feeling extremely anxious about tomorrow morning. I am starting un corso gruppo at a local language school, the first step, I hope, towards taking the Italian government’s CILS exam (level to be decided) towards the end of November. Domani, sono una studentessa! (Is that right? Please tell me it’s right! And I’ve not even started…this is not going well.)
I chose Otranto somewhat blindly, seduced by the thought of the Italian south (particularly once we get to November) and thinking it would somehow be more authentic, not to mention cheaper, than, say, the more obvious Rome, Florence or Venice. I didn’t take into account just how difficult it is to get here. For once, I took my beloved trains with good reason and for much of the journey it felt like the wise decision. I sped to Paris, passed a relatively uneventful night on the train to Milan, and snoozed and read my way through a smooth and inexpensive express ride to Lecce. At which point, it all went a bit wrong. Despite or because of the copious advice from most of the inhabitants of Lecce, I spent nearly three hours covering the 25 miles or so to Otranto, as night and my spirits fell. Welcome to the South.
Otranto, on almost two days’ acquaintance, is pleasant, but – so far – it is hardly the kind of dirty, beautiful city that makes this woman’s heart beat faster. (Then again, there is only one Palermo…). It is very small, with a highly-touristed centre, all cobbled streets and no cars. The sea truly is turquoise, the castle is imposing, the cathedral striking, the gift shops full of expensive tat. As ever, my priorities have been to find bread, coffee and wine. There will be time enough for sight-seeing. At the bakers this morning, the woman recognised me, and we are already chatting, bonding over my crap Italian. (For the record, she thought I was German.). The contrast with Palermo is stark. There I spent fourteen weeks descending into Hades each morning – aka La Vucciria market. I never wore sandals, always watched each footstep, because the range of detritus from the previous night presented various threats to health. I knew it was a lottery as to whether the bakers would be open at eight thirty in the morning, and that it was a certainty that the young man serving (and I use the term loosely) would thrust the bread at me, mutter something incomprehensible, refuse to make eye contact, take my money and – sometimes – give me change. But the bread – oh the bread – warm, yielding, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Bread of heaven.
But back to Otranto. Franco, at the wine shop, was just as friendly as the bakery woman. He was keen to help me learn English but in fact, unwittingly, introduced me to a wonderful Italian phrase: ‘piano, piano’ which, if I understood it correctly, means take it easy, slow down, it’s ok, there’s no hurry – and all without the patronising sneer of ‘calm down dear’. Franco repeated this about a dozen times during the ten minutes I was in his shop. I suspect (it being Day One in a Strange Place) I was looking and acting somewhat stressed.
Still on my list of crucial things to do is to hire a bike. I had severe bike envy this morning, en route back from the bakers, and seeing the local cyclists gathering outside a café. It made me miss my own Oxford bike café, Zappi’s, but even more it made me want to get on to the roads of the Salento. I have also not yet found a bar in which to have my aperitivo. These things take time, and in the mean time I’ll just have to make do with the roof terrace here. As I write this, I am surrounded on all sides (my apartment straddles a narrow building, looking out over one street on one side, another street on the other) by the sounds of families enjoying a Sunday in Otranto. I like the buzz of noise, I like the breeze which blows through the rooms, I like knowing that a few steps will take me to the sea. It all helps counter my nerves about tomorrow morning’s opening class, but perhaps a couple of months in the Salento will teach me not only Italian but to take life piano, piano.